I don't know why the British newspapers seem to offer better war coverage, but they often do. Here, vivid and extremely disturbing reporting (compare to Wall Street Journal here) from Ben Anderson of the Times of London on what our ROE-handcuffed troops are going through to take that prize package Marjah (above).
We clung to the steep sides of the canal trying to find some safe ground halfway up the bank. A rocketpropelled grenade came in just over our heads and exploded against the wall behind us. The Marines either side of me were hit with shrapnel. One, Doc Morrison, took a chunk of metal in his leg that severed an artery. The helicopter called to evacuate him came under machinegun and rocket fire.
Captain Ryan Sparks, Bravo’s commander and a veteran of some of the US military’s bloodiest days in Iraq, later said that the 12 hours of fighting on that first day in Marjah were “at least as intense as anything I experienced in Haditha and Fallujah”.
The plan had sounded ominous to begin with. Bravo company landed 800m (2,650ft) from Marjah’s most populated district, known as the “Pork Chop” by the Marines. It is an area in which the Taleban has had months to prepare home-made mines and defences so extensive that Brigadier-General Larry Nicholson, the Marines’ top commander, described it as “the most significant IED [improvised explosive device] threat faced by any Nato force in history”.
The Marines had no choice but to walk into well-planned attacks on a terrifying day of combat.
No choice? Maybe in COIN lala land, but I'll some crack military strategist could come up with something a little better than that.
Bravo Company, 1st Battalion 6th Marines, knew what was happening before the first shots were fired — one man on a scooter appeared to be dropping fighters off at a compound but they were powerless to do anything.
The new rules of engagement, dubbed “Courageous Restraint” and designed to prevent civilian casualties, meant that when the Sun came up over Marjah all they could do was wait. From either end of the road they were on, which leads towards Marjah’s northern bazaar, and from the fields, they were being watched.
Eventually the Marines had to break cover and came under heavy fire. They ran to a canal but were open targets on top of it and exposed if they slid towards the water.
Bravo had landed two hours earlier at 3am. Rain had turned the ground to cloying mud and most of the 150 Marines stumbled in it when they left the helicopters. Many carried so much equipment that they could not get up without help.
Now pinned down in the canal our position seemed potentially catastrophic. There was no consideration of retreat however and a fightback began. Three soldiers around me claimed to have killed four enemy fighters and eventually the Marines battled their way to the relative shelter of a nearby compound. The family were ordered to leave and seek shelter in another building nearby.
The Marines punched holes in the mudwalls and exchanged fire with attackers who seemed to have surrounded us. Eventually three fighters were identified in a compound about 200m away and a Harrier jet was called in to attack. It did so, twice,
Thank goodness for that. Gens. Nicholson and McChrystal must have been out ot lunch.
and the Marines resumed their progress towards their original objective — a petrol station at the edge of the bazaar.
Within minutes though they were taking fire from the same three men in the building struck by the Harrier. Everyone dived to the ground and bullets fizzed inches above our heads for 20 minutes. It was a pattern that would be repeated throughout the day, with each incremental advance met with fire from the Taleban. “Those guys were much better than the guys we faced here last year,” said Corporal Hillis. “Training can’t explain that, they had to be foreign fighters.”
We occupied a former police headquarters that night and in the morning the Afghan National Army (ANA), which has 17 soldiers with the company’s 3rd platoon, held a flag-raising ceremony. Said Asrar, their captain, said he hoped that the fighters of Marjah would join the ANA in its fight against terrorists and the Taleban but, if they chose not, “then we will fight against them and we will kick their ass”.
Within seconds of the flag going up enemy fighters fired several rounds.
Bravo started clearing adjoining compounds and again met resistance. At one point enemy fighters were in the neighbouring complex and Marines hurled grenades over the walls.
The last compound cleared that day was home to an Afghan family who agreed to rent a few rooms to the Marines for the night.
A family elder said that life under the Taleban had been preferable to rule from Kabul. “It was not like under the Government. There was no crime, no thieves and robberies,” he said. “I am not for either side, I just want to live in peace.”
For now peace seems at least several weeks away. Civil affairs teams were supposed to be at work within two days but one Marine, who had been told that the whole operation would take a month, was convinced it would take at least two.
Several times air support was called in but either denied final attack permission because the Marines could not be sure that no civilians were in the buildings, or was delayed for so long that they became pointless. Clearance had to come from the very top.
Later on that second day a Taleban sniper began to wreak havoc on our position, injuring two Marines on guard duty on the roof. Three suspected suicide bombers tried to storm a small outpost that was set up by the Marines. At least two were killed with grenades.
After 48 hours of relying on whatever they could carry fresh supplies arrived on the third day and the initiative began to swing. The Marines managed to ambush 20 fighters leaving a building, killing 18, but the enemy threat remained constant.
On that third night another Taleban sniper hit a Marine who was on the roof — his bullet struck his helmet between his eyes. Incredibly the Marine escaped without a scratch.
The big test now will be clearing the “Pork Chop”, where the threat will shift from war fighting to IEDs.